Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My Precious Metals

I was born in 1961 and in the late 60’s my father noted to me that the coins in Canada were changing from silver to nickel and that I might want to set aside any silver coins that came into my hands because “they might be worth something someday”. And so at the tender age of 7 I started my coin collection and for the next 40 years I simply filtered the silver coins out of my pocket change. The last time that one popped up in my change was five years ago and it was a very abused 1968 Canadian dime (50% silver). We all know how marriages work and so considering how tight money was for us through my graduate, post-doc and tenure-track years it was amazing to me that my coin collection survived. True, I did end up selling the folding money collection but the coins just sort of flew under the radar. Until recently.

So a “family expense” came up involving my brother and in a tense bargaining session that included the statement “he’s your brother, if he needs money it can’t come from our savings” I realized that perhaps it was time to liquidate my circulated silver.

Now in a previous post I mentioned that the value of silver has increased to the point where unless the coin is a true rarity or in mint condition the highest value of a circulated silver coin is its melt value. So, for example, a simple, circulated 1965 Canadian dime now has a “melt value” of $ 1.71 which is a 17x increase in the value of the coin that I filtered from my pocket change. Dad was right.

I needed some money so I gathered up my scrap silver coins and headed down to the local coin collector shop. Once the coins were counted and assessed it turns out not a single one of my scrounged silver coins had a value over melt and as far as I know they are currently being melted into bullion ingots. As I said in my previous post that, can only make the surviving coins more valuable.  It was an odd feeling letting go of something that I had collected over 40 years of my life and reminded me of that line from “The Lord of the Rings” about how if someone cannot let go of something when they are in need then they are slaves indeed.

Coin collecting shops are interesting places and they really do not like extensive written records of transactions that leave a taxable paper trail so generally your best deal is some kind of barter. I knew how much cash I needed and once I had that there was still some significant silver left. So do I keep it or trade it?

Now, I have never had the gold bug, I collected the silver because it was in my pocket change. I once had a first year chemistry student attempt to bribe me with a gold coin (“I brought this for you” was what he said as he slipped it on my desk at an appointment to discuss his failing grades and I had to remind him to take it when he left). That is the closest that I ever was to owning a gold coin.

So I have about $ 1000 of silver left and I look down and ask what I could trade for my silver in terms of gold. I figured, why not? At least the volume would be less. That is how I ended up with a couple of five gram Johnson-Matthey gold ingots and two quarter ounce Austrian gold coins. It was astonishing to see the pile of silver and its equivalent in gold. I mean, I have had toe-nail clippings bigger than the 5 g ingots (don’t ask). What is crazy is how owning this small hoard of gold has made me obsessive (perhaps not Gaussling obsessive but getting there) about the value of silver and gold. Note the value profiles for silver and gold. I have highlighted the day that I made the transaction. It was a good day to sell silver but a horrible day to buy gold. Go figure.


Anyway, I realized that I had an opportunity to expand my first intro chemistry lab. The first lab is mostly safety and lab policy related but we do density measurements to get their notebooks set up, generate data and show how to do combat statistics. As part of the lab I have some heavy gauge wire samples of copper, aluminum, silver, lead and platinum (leftovers from a misbegotten youth spent with the electrochemists) which we mass and then determine their volume by water displacement in 2 mL graduated pipettes (no, I do not let17 years olds wander off with the platinum, they do the precious metal measurements on the demonstration bench under my unblinking eye). It works great, the students get a kick out of handling precious metals and gold would be an interesting addition so at the suggestion of the coin dealer I went to a jewelry store where he knew they made their own jewelry from gold.

So, I get buzzed into the jewelry store and I have to beat my way past the excessively pretty and polished women at the jewelry counters and make my way to the back corner where there sits … a pure, unvarnished stereotype right down to the hairy, man cleavage with heavy gold chain. I am explaining my request to this guy and he dismisses me saying that they don’t sell gold and that they are constantly pestered by people who want to make their own gold jewelry. It is then that I open my daytimer to show them my university business card and he sees the gold coins and ingots. Suddenly, I have two stereotypes in front of me offering me cash for what I have. Now that I have their attention I explain to them that I would like to trade one of the quarter ounce gold coins for an equivalent mass of heavy gauge, pure gold wire. As a straight out exchange they get the coin purity premium in exchange for their time. This requires the advice of “Pop-Pop” (which, as an interpretation of what happens next, must be their grandfather who actually works the gold). So now I have three stereotypes talking to me (one in heavily accented English) and when they finally realize what I am asking it becomes a love-in. Pop-pop is pleased to have something unusual and educational to do and does not want to melt the coin but does not have pure gold in wire form so goes back into the walk-in safe and brings out a zip-lock sandwich bag filled with gold shot which he assures me is fine gold. I say that what I would like is a 10 cm length of pure gold wire with a diameter of 2 mm. We talk back and forth and it is clear that all three of them want to buy my little hoard of gold but eventually Pop-pop heads back to the workshop with his sandwich bag of gold shot. Meanwhile, the stereotype with the hairiest chest and the heaviest gold chain talks to me about their bottle of diiodomethane that they use to separate the diamonds from the cubic zirconia ("when we get a mixed lot in") until the return of Pop-pop who has melted the shot and drawn out a length of octagonal wire. He cuts off 10 cm and we check the mass, it is close enough and I leave them a coin and walk off with the gold wire as a straight up exchange. Everyone is happy and smiling except the very pretty and polished women at the jewelry counters (must be a union thing).

I realize that the value of the coin is that it is an official stamped coin and there is no question of its purity but the gold in the wire is going to be a real hassle to ever attempt to liquidate. I don’t care. The wire worked perfectly and the density hit pure gold on the button and I had an amazing meeting with Pop-pop and his family.

As a final note in this overly long, little to do with chemistry, summer excuse for not doing work post. I found it interesting that if you go to the Sigma-Aldrich website you see things like this:

Umm, 3 grams of gold for $ 739? The price of gold today is $ 1616 / oz giving $ 57 / gram. Now I understand that the fine people at Sigma-Aldrich have to make a profit to pay for their amazing and ubiquitous catalog and their fine customer service but I would suggest that a 430% markup is excessive even for them.   I did much better with Pop-pop and The Stereotypes.


andreew said...

I've purchased gold coins to dissolve in aqua regia before. Much cheaper. Unfortunately, they don't accept purchase orders, nor do they guarantee prices for 30 days as is customary otherwise. Getting a cash advance from the department was troublesome to say the least.

andreew said...

* gold coins from a bank

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

I know when I was in England a faculty member over there got in trouble for grant abuses that included purchasing precious metals and gems for research and then selling them for personal profit. I have been in electrochemistry labs where beakers of precious metals would be just sitting out on the bench. We work in a system that for the most part assumes that faculty are honorable.

Unknown said...

Great post - but please NEVER EVER tell us the story about toenail clippings!

Dorothy Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dorothy Brown said...

Well, that is nice to hear. :) Precious metals have inherent value in them, though it can still surprise how different ages would weigh and appraise them, such as the added value of silver as you said. Gold seems to be spiking in value as well, due no less to market speculators who are banking on piling up reserves. There's a bit more life to the good old coin collection, after all.

Dorothy @ South Florida Coins

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.